Carrie Shaw is the CEO and Founder of Embodied Labs, a Los Angeles-based startup that creates virtual reality human experience labs designed to build empathy toward people with disabilities.
Designed to relay first-person patient perspectives, Embodied Labs fosters a greater understanding of the institutional and interpersonal obstacles that people with disabilities face while navigating medical systems.
VR for Healthcare Training
The organization’s first embodied experience, We Are Alfred, simulates vision impairment and high frequency hearing loss using 360 video and Leap Motion hand tracking.
We love how Embodied Labs is using 360/VR video in healthcare and invited them to beta test SPIN Studio. Pixvana’s Eden Amital sat down with Carrie to learn more about the company’s current projects and Carrie’s visions for the future.
Pixvana: Thanks, Carrie, for taking the time to educate us about your work. Could you tell us a little about the process of developing The Alfred Lab and who you collaborated with to create that experience?
Carrie: The Alfred Lab grew out of my thesis research question—I was in a Master of Science program for medical visualization at the University of Illinois Chicago—and I had had this question for almost a decade: if healthcare providers could step into the patient perspective, would their ability to care for patients improve?
And that came from my experience as a caregiver for my mom, who was diagnosed with Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease when I was 19. I met my coworking team as I was prototyping solutions to this question. I hadn’t yet heard of virtual reality and I wasn’t sure how I was going to answer it. First we had to pick a topic—what patient perspective are we going to create and why. We talked to a lot of medical education faculty at UIC. One of them said, “Carrie, it’s so hard to get most 24-year-old medical students to understand what it’s like to be 60 years older than themselves.” So we started with an experience that looked at aging. When I did the research, I found that the two most common audio/visual impairments were macular degeneration and hearing loss.
We created desktop experiences—we had all these CG worlds that we built, but I hated the way CG felt, it was very sterile, and it wasn’t able to communicate this human aspect of storytelling, which is what we wanted. We made a workflow to integrate 360 video with hand tracking and some Unity-based gaming, and then ran into the question of how to actually get that piece to our end user: a trainee or a practicing healthcare provider, so we built an application that could play the lab.
Embodied Labs. Still from We Are Alfred.
The other week, we released a companion piece that’s a 360 documentary based on user feedback from the embodied Alfred experience that we started with. Students kept saying, “Who is Alfred? He’s fictional, but who does he represent?” We followed about six people in the Chicago area, centered around one man who has juvenile macular degeneration and is now the Vice President of The Chicago Lighthouse, which is a visual rehab center. We followed him around as he worked with different people who have macular degeneration. We’re connecting the real people living with this condition to the embodied experience so that users can get multiple perspectives on the disability. We’re about to begin our next module: we’re doing a similar process around Alzheimer’s, both in terms of a patient experience and an accompanying documentary. We’re really excited about the R&D side of how we can use things we haven’t yet, like voice interactivity, voice modulation, branching narratives, and then play with embodiment but also show people who are living with these conditions at the same time.
Pixvana: How is The Alfred Lab currently being implemented?
Carrie: Alfred is being used in two main settings. One is with people in Health Sciences programs—social work, DNA level care, all the way to doctors and nurses. The second is as a staff training tool. We’re doing a pilot right now with a long-term care facility called Chicago Methodist Senior Services: they are requiring 100% of their staff, from dining services all the way to directors of HR and Nursing to go through The Alfred Lab as well as the upcoming experiences that we’re releasing every quarter.
Pixvana: What kind of results are you seeing?
Carrie: We haven’t done any formal summaries of the data yet, but we’re seeing that a lot of folks have insight into how it feels to have an impairment and ideas on how they might improve their communication with their patients. We’ve heard, “I now understand how to notice somebody might have macular degeneration if they’re looking up or to the side,” which is what they felt themselves doing in the embodied experience. They’ve also said “I better understand why family members often get frustrated” and “this experience reminds me to always be patient with the residents.” I’ve always been fascinated by the way visual communication can cut through language, cultural, and educational barriers and this is yet another wonderful example!
Pixvana: Can you talk a little bit more about your choice to use 360 video?
Carrie: There’s this school of thought that says that things can be too real, and that they should just be CG and so I started out thinking, here’s what theory says. But we’re not simulating pathology, we’re trying to communicate human complexity. You can’t get that from an avatar-based simulation. 360 video offers complexity, immersion, presence, and understanding very similar to what happens in real life. Medical students’ feedback has been, “Wow, this was the most efficient time spent in which I learned more seven in minutes than I did in my entire geriatric workshop and module.” I love that 360 video live action story combined with Leap Motion hand tracking was able to resonate with so many different audiences: that surprised me.
Pixvana: What kinds of responses have you gotten from disabled folks?
Carrie: With We Are Alfred, we had people with macular degeneration go through it and comment on what their vision impairment is and how this simulated it. When I give talks about the lab, I always get a huge number of questions from people with different kinds of disabilities who are drawn to the process of how we build the labs and want to know if it could be a way for them to communicate with others what they go through. I see the labs as connectors between the disability community and others.
Pixvana: Can you talk a little bit about some of the directions that you see the work going in the future?
Carrie: Our mission statement is that we envision a world where health care providers and caregivers are able to better understand the perspectives of vulnerable patient populations. We are constantly adding to our pipeline of experiences centered around topics like mental health issues, diversity in healthcare, and learning from the child’s perspective. We’re really being careful that we make accurate experiences—accuracy means never saying, “This is what a disability is.”
If we could do anything we want, we would build out that pipeline with really high quality and thoughtful experiences that represent the perspectives and stories of the patient’s perspective.
I think anyone working in healthcare can be better at their job by seeing through all these different lenses.
About Carrie Shaw
Carrie Shaw is passionate about the art and science of human health.
She’s turned that passion into a company, Embodied Labs, that is dedicated to teaching the health care providers, caregivers, and patients about human health through virtual reality storytelling. Embodied Labs envisions a world where healthcare providers and caregivers are empowered to provide better quality care to vulnerable patient populations by better understanding their first-person experiences.
Carrie is no stranger to delivering healthcare information in unique ways. Following her graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.S. in Public Health, Carrie joined the Peace Corps as a Health Education volunteer in the Dominican Republic, where she taught reproductive health to youth and worked as a medical translator. After serving in the Peace Corps, Carrie became a caregiver for her mother, who had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and wondered, “If I could somehow step into my mother’s shoes and learn about life with AD through her eyes, would that help me become a better and more empathetic caregiver?” That question, along with lasting lessons of her service in the Peace Corps, drove her to pursue her Masters of Science in Biomedical Visualization at the University of Illinois Chicago, where she met her fellow Embodied Labs co-founders.
Embodied Labs’ work has been featured in Forbes, The History Channel, and The Journal of the American Medical Association, and the company was recently named one of five finalists in US Department of Education’s EdSim Challenge.